Wednesday, November 5, 2008

History Of Festivals 16 : Glastonbury 1971

When Noel Gallagher called the decision to book Jay-Z for this year’s Glasto “wrong” he was right, but for the wrong reasons, if you see what we mean. Noel reckoned the festival should be about guitar bands, not hip-hop, which is a point of view – albeit one contrary to the eclectic origins of the event. But really, it’s Jay-Z’s brand of remorseless ultra-capitalism, misogyny, slick marketing and corporatism that goes against the spirit of Glastonbury… as we shall now demonstrate, with help from our beautiful assistant Claude. Claude: the history books and the magic table, if you please. Isn’t Claude lovely?

There was a small festival at Worthy Farm in Pilton, Somerset in 1970, famously headlined by T-Rex. Eccentric folk/proggers Stackridge(still on the road this year I noticed depsite all members now being 98 years old - do they still involve dustbins and rhubarb in theri stage sets I wonder?) earned a little footnote in history, being the first to play. But the Glastonbury Festival proper was first held the following year, on the 22-26 June. It represented many things about the hippy ideal that seem very dated, a bit silly even, today – but it also stood for some things which are still rather wonderful and which, maybe, the world could do with a bit more of.

The 1971 event was organised by an unlikely triumvirate of local farmer Michael Eavis, Arabella Churchill (Winston’s granddaughter) and the activist and writer Andrew Kerr. The last-named, inspired by the 1970 Isle Of Wight occasion, was determined to put on a free festival. He wrote at the time:

“Man is fast ruining his environment. He is suffering from the effects of pollution; from the neurosis brought about by a basically urban industrial society; from the lack of spirituality in his life. The aims are, therefore: the conservation of our natural resources; a respect for nature and life; and a spiritual awakening.”

Deep stuff, man! The dude was ahead of his time. But Kerr and company were serious. Bill Harkin designed and built the famous pyramid stage – a 1/10 scale replica of the Great Pyramid in Egypt! – in the lovely Vale Of Avalon, where the ley lines are said to converge, the pyramid-shape being the most effective receptacle for receiving the earth’s energy. Ley lines were very popular in the 70s. The old straight tracks and all that. Most of Steve Hillage's songs are about them. Can't be something to do with taking LSD can it?

Also converging on the free event around the summer solstice were around 7,000 festival-goers, looking forward to a week of music and love in the Somerset countryside. It was a perfect venue: hills on both sides, channelling the sound (and the energy man!) and loads of woods around to camp in.

The bill did not have the massive names of, say, the Bath Festival of 1970, but nevertheless included superb bands Fairport Convention, Melanie, Quintessence, The Edgar Broughton Band, Family, Traffic and David Bowie.

The very good Glastonbury Fayre film of the event shows Fairport in fine fettle on songs like Angel Delight, but sadly the Bowie stuff doesn’t make it due to legal reasons. Check out the film if you can – it was shot by Nicolas Roeg, who was then on the middle of a great creative period that saw him shoot or direct several classics of the time, including The Man Who Fell To Earth and Performance.

Another creative force who also very much encapsulate that era were the band Quintessence, one of the performances here which most define that sort of musical style and hippy vibe of 1971. They played a superb set here. There's not enough flute in rock these days. Melanie also captures the spirit of the times, playing Peace Will Come and a surprisingly punchy set. Both Melanie and the Edgar Broughton Band could be relied on to pitch up at almost any festival in the early 70s.

Family gave a typically exhilarating and bizarre performance: has there been a more idiosyncratic voice in rock than Roger Chapman? The singing goat I used to call him - but not in a bad way. His vocal here is amazing: the trippers must have been made of stern stuff; it’s bloody terrifying in places. The Pink Fairies, fixtures at free festivals, rocked their Uncle Harry’s Last Freak Out and Arthur Brown (whose birthday it was) cranked up the madness with a typically weird and wonderful late night slot. Traffic’s Gimme Some Loving was another festival high point. Traffic were having a bit of a resurgence thanks to their excellent john Barlycorn Must Die and Shoot Out At The Fantast Factory albums. albums of high quality they are too. Their jazzy influenced rock with a splash of folk and blues thrown in is never less than joyful. 1973's On The Road is one of my all time fave live albums. So much so that I once got into a fight at a party in 1978 when someone took it off to put on The Damned's new single! Oh the punk rock wars how we miss them.

The audio of the Bowie performances sounds really good, too. He played at dawn on the Friday and wowed the crowd with Oh! You Pretty Things and did Memories Of A Free Festival (how could he not?). The Supermen also sounds like it was excellent as well – what a treat to have seen such a legend, on the up, in such a setting.

Perhaps the absence of any truly megastar names help contribute to the atmosphere: there was less of the rampant egotism, and the eclectic nature of the festival encouraged dancers, jugglers and other loons. There was free food, and plenty of dope, and lots of naked dancing. Almost everyone who was there speaks of a peaceful, relaxed, loving vibe – even the Hells Angels were alright! There were litter patrols, there was a ‘Hassle Van’ driving around in the night to help people sort out any hassles – there were even (naturally) claims of a UFO sighting on the night of the Solstice.

If it all sounds a million miles away from Oasis fighting with Jay-Z about who’s more suitable for Glastonbury… it is. But what an amazing thing Glastonbury has been and still is, thanks to Michael Eavis and company. Hopefully a little of the spirit of 1971 still survives – and who knows, maybe the environmental concerns of today plus some sort of reaction against the X Factorisation of modern music could see an appetite for similar events return.

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